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The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer of Delft transformed traditional Dutch
themes into images of fantastic poise and peace, rich with symbolic
The documented facts about Jan Vermeer's life are few. He was born on
October 30 or 31, 1632, in Delft, Netherlands, the second of two
children to Digna Baltens and Reynier Jansz. His father was an art
dealer and silk weaver who also kept a tavern, and Vermeer probably took
over the business after his father's death in 1655. It is presumed that
his father, who was actively involved with the local artists and
collectors, was an early influence on the young child. Vermeer
supposedly began his training as an artist around the mid-1640s.
In 1653 Vermeer married a well-to-do Catholic girl from Gouda; they had
eleven children. In the year of his marriage, he became a master in the
Delft painters' guild (an association), of which he was an officer from
1662 to 1663, and again, from 1669 to 1670. He seems to have painted
very little and to have sold only a fraction of his limited production,
for the majority of his paintings were still in the hands of his family
when he died.
His dealings in works by other artists seem to have
supported his family reasonably well until he was financially ruined
following the French invasion of 1672, when France invaded the Spanish
Netherlands. He died in 1675 and was buried on December 15. The
following year his wife was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Nothing is known about where Vermeer was educated and trained as a
painter. In part because verses written following the death of Carel
Fabritius (1622–1654) in 1654 mention Vermeer as his successor as
Delft's leading artist, it has been suggested that Fabritius was
Vermeer's teacher. Certainly Fabritius helped develop Vermeer's interest
in perspective experiments (experiments with depth) and his use of a
light-flooded wall as a background for figures. But Fabritius lived in
Delft only after 1650, by which time Vermeer would have been well on his
way toward the completion of his training.
The warm colors of The Procuress relate it to paintings of the Rembrandt
school (styled after the painter Rembrandt [1606–1669]) of the 1650s,
but its subject matter and composition reflect influence by paintings of
the 1620s by the Utrecht Caravaggists, a group of painters in Utrecht,
Netherlands, who stressed a new, international style. Considered to be
earlier than The Procuress are two pictures that resemble it because of
the color scheme, dominated by reds and yellows, and because they are
larger in size and scale than Vermeer's later works.
Christ in the House
of Martha and Mary is similar to compositions by Hendrick Terbrugghen
(1588–1629) and Gerrit van Honthorst (1590–1656), who spread the
Caravaggesque (having to do with the painting style of Italian painter
Caravaggio [c. 1571–1610]) style in Holland. Diana and Her Companions,
Vermeer's only mythological subject, is also suggestive of Italy. It is
his only painting of figures in a landscape setting.
After these three diverse experiments, which may have owed something to
Vermeer's familiarity with works in his father's stock of art, he
painted the Girl Asleep at a Table, in which he used the warm range of
colors of his other early pictures but in terms of subject matter and
composition plunged into the mainstream of current Delft painting.
The Soldier and Laughing Girl, marked the shift between Vermeer's early
and mature works in that pointillé (gleaming highlights of thick layers
of paint, which brightens the surface) appeared for the first time.
Vermeer's style just before 1660 is also well represented by The Cook.
The rich paint surface with its extraordinary quality, the monumental
figure perfectly balanced in space and involved in a humble task, and
the intense colors dominated by yellow and blue all show Vermeer at the
height of his powers.
Following these works, which are assumed to have immediately followed
1660, come the "pearl pictures." The Concert of about 1662 and the Woman
with a Water Jug of perhaps a year later display the pleasing charms of
More complicated compositions and especially larger space
representations mark the major works of the last decade of Vermeer's
life. The Allegory of the Art of Painting (c.1670) is large and complex
in both composition and meaning. On the whole it is not influenced by
the hardness and dryness that weakened his later works, such as the
Allegory of the Catholic Faith.
The quietness, peacefulness, order, and unchanging world of Vermeer's
art provide hints of immortality, or the idea that one cannot be
affected by death. Perhaps that is why this painter, whose works appear
to be as clear as the light of day, has always been thought to be
Gowing, Lawrence. Vermeer. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Larsen, Erik. Jan Vermeer. New York: Smithmark, 1998.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Jan Vermeer. New York: Abrams, 1981.
Wheelock, Arthur K. Vermeer & the Art of Painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
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